An Absalom Moment – 2 Samuel 18: 5-9, 15, 31-33
The Eleventh Sunday of Pentecost [Proper 14], August 11/12, 2012
Washington Memorial Chapel, Valley Forge, PA + The Rev. Roy Almquist
You do not have to be a football fan to be touched by the death of young Garrett Reid, the twenty-eight-year-old son of Philadelphia Eagles’ coach, Andy Reid. Garrett died suddenly last Sunday at Lehigh University, where the Eagles train. When parents must bury a child a quiet rage cries out within us: This is not the way things should be!
And yet, grief is the great common denominator that unites us all. Who among us has not experienced the death of a child … or a younger brother or sister … or shared such grief in the lives of people we love. I mentioned in another sermon the sadness Shannon and I endured in 1969 when our five-week-old son Erik died of sudden infant death syndrome. My sister’s daughter, our beloved niece, died of cancer at the age of sixteen. As a pastor I have stood with numerous parishioners who have lost a child to death, addiction, or some other profound estrangement that is often a kind of death.
This commonality of grief and loss spoke to me as I focused my attention on the First Lesson for this Sunday, a continuation of last week’s reading, which told us of the Prophet Nathan challenging King David over his sinful behavior, actions that separated Bathsheba from her husband Uriah and caused that good man’s death.
Today we learn of the rebellion of King David’s son Absalom, who led a revolt against his father until the revolt was put down and the young man was killed by David’s army. In many ways the words of Nathan come howling back to us today, particularly those words when Nathan said to David that because of his sinfulness … the sword shall never depart from your house … [God] will raise up trouble against you from within. [II Samuel 12: 10]
Our Old Testament lesson presents to us the great conflict between David, the King, and David, the Father. Many people in public life do not have the luxury of a block of personal time to grieve their pain and loss. Thus Coach Reid buried his son on a Tuesday and on Thursday evening was on the field, leading the Eagles in an exhibition contest against over our cross-state rivals, the Pittsburgh Steelers.
We know that King David was a great and successful King of Israel. Under his leadership Israel was secure from her enemies and her territory expanded. But in the private dimensions of his life David went from tragedy to catastrophe. His shameful alliance with Bathsheba seemed to encourage a level of dysfunction and disaster that plagued King David throughout his entire life.
A lot has happened to King David since last week’s lesson. David’s oldest son, Amnon, perhaps reflecting his father’s lust and indiscretion, developed an inappropriate infatuation with his half-sister Tamar. In an act of unboundaried passion Amnon seduced and violated his sister. David learned of this terrible event and, although angry, was unable to punish Amnon, because the young man was his beloved first-born child. [2 Samuel 13:21] Thus the most powerful king Israel ever knew was unable to practice a little tough love with his eldest son. This inaction sped up the disintegration of his family.
Tamar’s full-brother Absalom did not share his father’s tolerance his bad boy brother. He did not act immediately but, when he did, he avenged his sister’s dishonor by having Amnon killed. Absalom then ran for his life, fearing the anger of his father David. He was in exile for two years, until eventually David allowed him to return. But father and son were never reconciled and, in time, Absalom led a great rebellion against his father, driven by a desire to overthrow and kill his father.
Absalom is one of the fascinating characters in the Bible. Like his father he was a powerful soldier and born leader. Apparently he was a very handsome young man, with an ambitious spirit that matched his physical attraction. In the fourteenth chapter of Second Samuel we read: Now in all Israel there was no one to be praised so much for his beauty as Absalom; from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head there was no blemish in him. [2 Samuel 14:25]
This brings us to our Lesson for today. With Absalom and the rebels fleeing from David’s army, the King goes to Joab, the same commander that followed the King’s order to stage Uriah’s murder, only this time David requests mercy: Deal gently for my sake with the young man Absalom. [2 Samuel 15:5]
But that was not to be. The army pursed Absalom into a wooded area where we are told the young rebel got caught by his glorious hair in the branches of an oak tree. Ironically, he was not astride a mighty horse but a lowly mule, an animal that left him suspended in the air, caught by his thick hair, unable to fight or to escape.
Walter Brueggemann, the Biblical scholar, has made an intriguing observation:
Absalom is suspended between life and death, between the sentence of a rebel and the value of a son, between the severity of the king and the yearning of the father. He is no longer living, because he is utterly vulnerable, but he is not dead. [Walter Brueggemann, Interpretation: First and Second Samuel (John Knox Press, 1990), page 319, quoted by Robert Koch, Working Preacher, August 6, 2012]
Immobilized by this bizarre entrapment, Absalom was quickly surrounded. The plea of the King … Deal gently for my sake with the young man Absalom … had clearly fallen on deaf ears as Joab, the commander, put the success of the mission above the desires of a heart-sick father. Although the words are omitted from our lesson, the 18h chapter of Second Samuel is very clear that Joab thrust three darts into the heart of Absalom, while he was still alive on the oak. And then his ten young armor-bearers finished the job, killing Absalom. [II Samuel 18: 14-15]
This is one of the most poignant moments in Scripture. The news is brought to David and his anguish arises not only from the tragedy of Absalom’s rebellion and death, but also out of his own failure to be an effective father: O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son!
These words capture the pain that every parent experiences at the death of a child. But in truth this story also captures the aching we know as parents when life does not work out well for our children … the failure of a marriage, a life-altering accident or illness, a career reversal, or the pain of a rebellious child.
The story reminds us that we live in a world where brokenness has a way of encouraging even more brokenness. The lesson is a dramatic reminder that sinful acts and moral compromise continue to breed pain and distress to the second and third generation. Many of us are parents or grandparents, or perhaps beloved aunts or uncles, and in those roles we have known an Absalom Moment, a time when pain has crashed in upon us because of events or decisions in the lives of those we love and yet feel so powerless to effect any change in the reality of their present distress.
We have an Absalom Moment when we must acknowledge that our child or grandchild has made a foolish decision that will now have terrible consequences, a choice that often represents a total abandoning of the core values that we have spent our lifetime encouraging.
We have an Absalom Moment when we must admit that, like David, we have a child or a grandchild who has broken faith with God and family, acted in a hateful manner, and has chosen to go away to a place where he or she cannot or will not hear our words of love and forgiveness.
Finally we do have an Absalom Moment when we must acknowledge that the story of Absalom is also our story. For we, too, rebel against God. We choose to go our own way, turning from the truth and life we have come to know through Jesus Christ. There is great wisdom in the word of Paul to the Christians in Rome: For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God… [Romans 3: 22-23]
Finally, let us remember that the one thing David was willing to do … give up his life to save his son … is the very thing we believe God has done for us through Jesus Christ. God so loved the world that he gave his only Son that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life. [John 3: 16] This is good news … this is the hope of our salvation. Let us delight in this truth. AMEN.